Custom Designs and fees

I recently had an experience with a customer that has raised some
important issues. I am seeking advice and counsel from my fellow

First off, I do not have a “brick and mortar” store. Being a
relative newcomer, I work in a studio at home. I have a line of
fine jewelry and I also do custom orders, either with my own things
or by taking an old piece and turning it into something the owner
will wear. I enjoy this very much AND it takes alot of time to work
with someone, create, review, revise. etc. Over time, I am learning
various ways to save time (by having the customer cut out photos of
what she likes from magazines etc) so that I can get a good idea of
what she likes.But no matter what, there is still alot of time

REcently, I brought my things over to a potential customer and her
husband (for the second time) because she called me and said she was
absolutely going to “do” something–ie have me make a variety of
things from my collection to expand the possibilities inherent in her
five-foot strand of 8mm pearls (breathtaking). Feeling horrified
(because she looks gorgeous in the pearls just the way they are),but
excited at the challenge, we set to work. I advised her about
practical considerations, gave reliable estimates of what things
would cost, reigned her in when she was keeling over the edge into
impossibly extravagant, advised her to perhaps do this project in

I sent the proposal. She called yesterday to say that she “isn’t
comfortable” spending money on herself so she is going to put this
"on hold".

I was frustrated and annoyed, to say the least. Now, I recognize that
people like to play with concepts, dream a little, and often find
gaps between what they Think something will cost and what is actually
does cost. I thought I took care of that during the meeting when they
asked for “ballpark” figures and I gave them what turned out to be
accurate assessments. They did not blanch or quiver when I told them.
They were asking for very high-end things and encouraged me to tell
them what I thought would be best. I described an “ultimate” idea
then gave them a scaled back idea so they could find a decent water
level for themselves. They are a very high income couple and the
husband was more than willing to get her what she wants.

Do you all charge for your time if someone does this (more than
once!) or do you just write it off as part of doing business? I know
you can and should build time into the ultimate cost of an item and,
in this case, I did that in the final bid. But in this case, I have
nothing to show for this effort. Do you all ask your customers what
their “budget” is for a certain project or do you allow them to say
it indirectly by offering choices in both 18K and 14K for instance,
or choices stones of varying degrees of expense etc?

Please advise.

Diana Widman
Birch Tree Studio


I suggest you charge a fair price for your design services. You could
offer a free initial consultation session and then charge a fixed
price, hourly price, or maximum price for designing.


Diane, This is not the case where you can charge a customer for your
time. It is no different than when they come into my store and spend
3 hours talking to us about what we have in the case and pricing out
custom work. The only difference is that you have no storefront to do
it in. It would be unethical to charge someone for merely spending
time with them in an attempt to sell them something. If you had
created models, or spent significant time, at their request, doing up
drawings for them you would have a case for charging them, but then
you should have gotten a deposit up front. Basically you were simply
trying to sell them something and you failed. You can’t charge them
for that. Don’t be worried about the failure either. If I got upset
every time someone left my store without buying something I would be
the most miserable person in the world.

Daniel R. Spirer, G.G.
Spirer Somes Jewelers
1794 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02140

Dear Diana-

What you’re up against, as all crafts persons are, is the consumers’
expectation of service. Newly introduced to the variety of skills,
materials and talents that we represent, theirs is an honest
confusion and need for education. Patience is required. Consider your
design advice as Client Developement.

Others, however, abuse the service. Insensitive to your time and
needs. We all have to be on guard for time thieves and looky-loos.
Set limits to your time unless you want to create a policy of billing
potential clients for consultation time. Which would sorely test your

Most sincere consumers will appreciate your efforts, designs and
advice. Many will choose another’s work, materials or pricing. That’s
the law of the market.

The only other alternative is to deal solely with professional

Good Luck.

Kim Lilot. Living in the Material World.

    Do you all charge for your time if someone does this (more than
once!) or do you just write it off as part of doing business? 

Having a customer put a set of worked up ideas on hold is a common
enough experience for me, and I just write it off as part of doing
business. Many of my better ideas have evolved out of these give and
take sessions with people who are not quite sure what they want, as
these sessions not only get customers thinking, they get me thinking.
Customers may actually like your ideas but not have the confidence
in themselves to follow through, letting their “what if I don’t like
it when it’s done” fears take over their urge to go ahead. The goal
most of us are striving for is to become so well established or
respected that this confidence issue disappears. Annoying people
with a penalty charge is not going to get us to that goal any sooner.
Move on to the next project. We have a saying in my store for
situations like this, " It’s all just practice, anyway." Anthony
Toepfer, Anthony Toepfer Jewelers, Keene, NH


Being in the jewelry business for over 21 years myself, I have
encountered this from time to time. Taking the time to meet with
customers, talk, agree and when it came to it, they changed their
mind. I had a customer over Christmas that I have made many pieces
for them over the years and this Christmas they wanted to buy a small
commercial ultrasonic to clean her jewelry. Being she wears jewelry
on all of her fingers, I felt this for them was a decent request. If
stones happen to fall out in it they will then have to bring them
back to me to reset, but I did tell them of the chances of that

Well, they decided to change their minds being she really was
expecting diamond earrings. I went and bought the sonic, delivered
it with a very small percentage of profit, as I was doing this as a
courtesy. Now I had to return it. I know they will be back for more
jewelry in the future. So yes, this is a part of doing business. We
can’t hit every home run that is thrown to us. There are times we
are going to strike out for one reason or another. We just take and
learn. I know it is frustrating but the rewards of the good sales
overshadow the lost ones.

I know this does not help but at least you know you are not out there

Amber Gustafson

Do you all ask your customers what their "budget" is for a certain
project or do you allow them to say it indirectly by offering
choices in both 18K and 14K for instance, or choices stones of
varying degrees of expense etc? 

diane . . . i am like you and operate from a small studio by myself.
what i do is, before i start sketching for a commissioned piece, i
attempt to find out as many specifics as i can from the customer
about possible design elements and materials. somewhere during our
conversation, a very rough cost and/or their budget is always
covered so that we both are aware of this important factor before any
design time is invested. if their budget effects the design
possibilities . . . i mention it at this point. i then work from
here and offer three designs that fall: 1.) under budget; 2.) at
budget, and 3.) above budget (an exercise in the possibilities). i
have all three choices costed out in the different materials they
mentioned during our initial conversation so they can make informed
decisions for each choice. i’ve been a bit lucky, because normally
the customer will opt for the “above budget” piece once they see the
sketch . . . and they appreciate the fact that you thought enough to
offer a lower budget choice too. if additional design time or
“tweeking” is required . . . you just go from there.

merry radtke

well, for starters…perhaps you could take the ideas gotten so far,
and come up with a “showpiece”…a challenge to yourself…perhaps
if that customer were to see what you did, she might just reconsider.
my reaction to what happened there is to write off the time spent only
as time spent…my own best pieces have always come from the input of
various potential customers who have never bought anything from me at
all…hope this helps, erhard.

I would just put it on file save your notes and estimates.They
sometimes wait years before doing anything.It could pay off. I just had
a couple come back after two years visting from colorado,I went round
and round with them the first time however this time they were already
to get started and they added to what is to be done .By they way the
only way I remembered them is because on the first visit they tracked
mud all over my store with muddy hiking boots.That was a pain.

diana -
you asked:

     Do you all ask your customers what their "budget" is for a
certain project or do you allow them to say it indirectly by
offering choices in both 18K and 14K for instance, or choices stones
of varying degrees of expense etc? 

whenever i am approached for a commissioned design it’s usually
prefaced with a desire for something similar to another design the
person has seen & knows the price, if there will be any upgrades from
that piece/price i always explain what & why (“tanzanites are more
expensive than the sapphires”; “that element requires more labor”,
etc.) short explanations have worked & the buyer feels better
educated for it -



Your business and mine sound very much alike. Here is the problem as
I see it. Most people are used to going into retail stores and
dealing with sales people or employees whose time is basically free.
Store employees know that they get a lot of “lookers.” They will
spend time with a customer and use their sales craft to make a deal
go through. Believe me, sales is a craft just like smithing, and
some salespeople are very, very good at it. Anyway, when you get to
the point where we are you have to market yourself differently. You
must convince the customer that you are less like a store employee
and more like a professional, an attorney or an architect, for
example. As such your time is valuable.

I used to get very frustrated when dealing with clients who "wasted"
my time. Now I have a whole technique when talking to people that
puts me in a different league than jewelers in a store. I let them
know straight away that I charge $50.00 an hour for any consultation,
whether it is for designing or if I am selling a diamond. I let them
know that if the sale goes through the consultation fee is credited
to the sale. Otherwise I estimate from the original call how long I
think the consultation will take, advise the customer of the fee
upfront. I either get a check or credit card number when I leave, the
amount depends on how long I work my magic.

This serves two purposes. If someone has invested $100.00 in you for
a design they are much more motivated to make things work out. As
well, it weeds out those who are on the borderline at the beginning
and are really just using you as their evening of entertainment.

Of course this requires that you really think about yourself and
present your craft in a way that is totally professional. You don’t
want the customer thinking that you are unorganized and wasting their
time. This means getting a very professional portfolio type brief
case with everything in it that you will need to design or sell your
ideas or product. It may even mean that you have to have a place to
invite your clients so that they feel that they are really getting
something of value.

As far as working out estimates before a consultation or offering to
stay within someone’s budget, that is up to them. If they are
looking to spend a couple hundred dollars, most people have the
presence of mind to gracefully withdraw their interest. Those who
are serious about buying something of value will go ahead. At any
rate, you are at least not screwed out of the time you lost at the

Larry Seiger
LS Hancock Design Studio

Hi all - (sorry, another wordy response here . . . it is really hard
to be succinct!!)

Some good input on this question. First of all, I’d like to say that
the service of creating custom work is something unique that we can
offer for the duration of our careers. Satisfying a special order is
a special skill in communication and foresight on our part, that I
feel requires continual developing. My mentor was extremely skilled
at special orders and guiding the customer to a workable solution - in
a very timely manner. Showing images or samples of previous work
helps in communication, however, an ability to sketch on site during
the discussion is essential.

Looking back on my mentor’s ability to proliferate endless pieces
fascinates me even moreso now that I am also on the front lines in a
small way, once a week. I’m learning to trust myself better when I
feel strongly about a potential design solution (coming from the
customer’s request) that I am certain will not work properly in
solving a piece. When I don’t listen, I’ll usually get in big trouble

  • primarily time wise! I am finding that it is more important to
    follow the path of listening to (and trusting) myself, than to be
    concerned with the possibility of losing the job. I think if we are
    straightforward with the customer and they like our work, we may lose
    that particular job - but by being honest, forthright and polite, we
    won’t lose the customer. . . at least that would be my hope! :slight_smile: As
    an independent, I have to follow rules that work for my level of skill
    and time.

I will never hold a customer to a piece - if they are not happy with
the results - I’ll just swallow it. My first priority is to have a
satisfied customer. If I am totally using my own raw materials - and
they chose not to keep the piece, then, I’ll just put it out for sale.
If I am to set the customer’s stone - say, with some of their
recycled gold or whatever -that is another situation - and I’ll make
sure we are talking apples and apples before going too far with the
piece (and spending too much time). But, it was my choice to make the
effort to satisfy their needs - so, if they are not happy - I’ll just
return the stone etc. and hope the next jeweler can fulfill the job.
Fortunately, I’m getting smarter in making choices of when to not
accept a job - and I think that is as important as saying yes.

When I tackle a difficult job - and it takes more time than the pay -
then, it immediately falls in the “learning curve” category . . . and
there are a multitude of opportunities for that category! Because of
my limited bench time hours, I can only add a few of those jobs to my
mix of work! The customer generally has no clue of the time and risk
it takes to do our work. It takes great skill and confidence (and no
doubt experience is the best teacher) to guide the direction of the
special order to a workable solution for both sides.

I also try not to kick myself too hard when I make a poor choice (and
don’t stick to what I feel is the best solution - because I am too
accomodating) and get in trouble! Fortunately, when this happens, I’m
usually too busy with other work to dwell on it and just carry on . .
. and hopefully be smarter the next time!

I always marvel at bench jewelers who can manifest wonderful pieces -
primarily designed by others. I feel their contribution to our field
deserves much more recognition! I’ll keep plodding along - but no
where near their level of ability! :slight_smile:

Best wishes to you in your ventures,


I’ve managed to branch out into new areas after some of these failed
commission jobs. Maybe it’s because the commission was in an area I
was about to investigate anyway, and after talking to the customer
about it I resolve some issues in my mind. Plus recently I was paid a
small fee to make a ‘sample’ (she asked the same of some other
jewellers) and after this was inspected the customer must’ve chosen
another person’s work. However I now make a new line of jewellery
based on my investigations.


All, One of the things that forced closing my stone cutting, jewelry
selling, jewelry making store front was my own inability to control
the customers. When I first opened the store front my goal was to
provide my customers a service and make everyone happy. This was a
drastic mistake. After six months operating this way I had many
special cut stones in my stock that customers did not pick up or
refused because they did not turn out as good as they thought they
would be. I also suffered through many long design sessions
evaluating their rough and giving them estimates as to the yield and
quality of their finished stones. Some people would bring in hundreds
of stones expecting me to pick out only the best ones to cut. I did
this and cut for them the ones we picked out. Then they would come
to pick them up and just wanted to pay for the best of what I had
cut. In the mean time the bills kept on coming and I fell farther
behind completing other jobs I had taken in. After six months I
changed my way of operating to being a lot more aggressive at picking
the jobs I accepted. This lead to unsatisfied customers who did not
like me turning down their jobs. I also put a 20 minute limit on
time that I would spend evaluating or helping a customer on a special
order. Around the 20 minute time I would tell the customer to put up
some money to continue the project or I would have to go back to
work. Most immediately backed out of the deal. At the end of the
second six months of this operating procedure I was doing better
financially, but still behind in my orders. I closed my shop after a
year with over three months of work to complete that was back logged.
The reason why I closed the shop was customer control and nothing
else. My experience was you must control the customer or you will
not be able to financially make the shop work.

Gerry Galarneau

Daniel –

I have to disagree on this. You are fortunate in that you have a
storefront through which you can spread this type of cost across all
of your product lines. It can be found in things like ‘salaries’ and
’overhead’ and if you don’t have the time you or your staff spends
working with customers (if they don’t buy today, they may tomorrow)
built into these variables, you need to have a long talk with your

Laura. (a retired accountant – and much happier in my new life, thank

Dear Gerry. Your generalization about “controlling the customer” is a
bit myopic in my estimation. Getting along with customers is the most
challenging aspect of doing business and it requires that you be able
to draw out of the potential customer what his or her aspirations,
attitudes and quirks might be. Furthermore, you must then make up
your mind early in the dialogue whether the project might be
profitable and whether the customer is “playing with a full deck” !
In a typical Mom and Pop operation you have got to value your time at
a dollar per minute. Therefore, if, after five dollars worth of time
have elapsed, you suspect that you are going nowhere, you must cut
the dialogue off. In the long run it is not a matter of "controlling"
the customer, but, rather, one of determining whether you can form a
mutually beneficial realtionship with that person. Accordingly, it is
a matter of controlling yourself ! If you think you are going
nowhere, then get the hell out of the situation ! You can accomplish
the foregoing by laying your cards on the table and diplomatically
telling the erstwhile customer that you can’t see any light at the
end of their tunnel ( in so many words) and then terminating the
dialogue. Once in awhile you just have to escort the pest to the
door, but even then, it can be done in such a manner as to not
provoke undue ire.

I had just this kind of experience yesterday. A seemingly affable man
walked into my shop inquiring about having some blue Tiger-eye cut.
As I drew him out it became apparent that: 1. He wanted to have it
done cheaply. 2. He thought that his stone was very rare and
valuable. 3. He wanted to participate in the process so that the
stone was done properly. Sayonara !!! None of the above signals
portended a workable relationship and I sent him packing. (
Innocuously, of course)

I have always advocated that the most important element in successful
retailing is a thorough grounding in human psychology along with a
giant dollop of patience, perserverance and insight.

Ron at Mills Gem, Los Osos, CA.